ATLANTA — On a day that began with thoughts of first place dancing in the Braves’ heads for the first time since October, in a season during which so much has been going right of late, something continued to go very wrong with Ian Anderson.
He struggled with his control and making batters guess wrong or miss. He allowed the Angels — with a 12-38 record since late May — to bat around in a nightmarish first inning with five runs, six hits, a walk and a home run. One of the bright young stars of the pitching rotation and last year’s run to a World Series title, Anderson eventually was rescued by manager Brian Snitker two base runners into the fourth inning and ultimately was tagged for seven runs as his ERA ballooned to a career- worst 5.31.
“It’s tough — it’s been tough all season, obviously,” Anderson said after Sunday’s 9-1 loss to the Angels. “I’m just not performing the way I want to. It’s probably the worst stretch of baseball I’ve had in my life.”
The loss by itself is hardly devastating for the Braves. They started the day a half-game back of the Mets (who played Sunday night) and won the series. But on a macro level, it wasn’t a good day. There was news after the game that outfielder Adam Duvall will have season-ending wrist surgery. Ronald Acuña Jr. had two hits and drove in the team’s only run but fielded questions from a number of media members afterwards about his suspect defensive play in right field, which included a throwing error Sunday. (He maintains he feels fine physically and believes he is playing at his standard high level).
And then there’s the Anderson situation. It’s fair to ask if it is getting near the point where the Braves have to make a decision about whether to keep him in the rotation.
The 24-year-old entered the season as the clear No. 3 starters behind Max Fried and Charlie Morton. But Anderson has dropped to a clear no. 5 behind Fried, Morton, Kyle Wright and Spencer Strider in effectiveness. Anderson’s 5.31 ERA through 19 starts is several ticks north of last year’s 3.58. He has allowed a major-league-leading 48 walks and completed only 95 innings in 19 starts (5.0 per, lowest among the team’s starters). His 1.58 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is second worst in the majors.
A bad season for Anderson was punctuated by a horror movie of a June, during which he allowed 33 earned runs, 38 hits and four home runs in 28 2/3 innings. The 6.91 ERA in June was the worst single month for any Atlanta starter since the blow-it-up rebuilding days of 2016, when Aaron Blair (9.51) and Matt Wisler (8.89) haunted Atlanta.
The first objective of any Braves pitcher: avoid Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler as reference points.
With that, we’ll close the book on Ian Anderson, and it was bad: 3 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 74/41. Has a 5.31 ERA, and #Braves need to seriously consider making a move until he gets straightened out. Muller has pitched well at Gwinnett, seems time to give him another shot.
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienATL) July 24, 2022
The strange thing about Sunday’s performance is Anderson said he “threw a great bullpen” before the game. When that was relayed to Snitker, the manager responded: “The biggest curse for a manager is when the pitching coach comes out and says, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s great in the bullpen.’ That never works.”
Snitker said he maintains confidence in Anderson. “We know what he can do. None of these guys are finished products. They’re going to go through things they’ve never experienced, and they’re going to have to navigate it and work to make it better.”
When asked how long the team would give Anderson to pitch his way out of this, Snitker said, “I don’t know. Personally, it’s up to Alex (Anthopoulos). I’ve seen what he can do, I know what he can do. I have a lot of faith in him. Those calls aren’t mine.”
It’s quite the U-turn from when Anderson’s reference points were Christy Mathewson and Don Larsen. In 2020, Anderson allowed no runs and six hits in his first three postseason starts (15 2/3 innings), the first time that had happened since the Giants’ Mathewson threw shutouts in Games 1, 3 and 5 of the 1905 World Series ( when no one worried about rest and pitch counts). Then, during the 2021 run to the World Series, Anderson went 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in four postseason starts, including five hitless innings against the Astros in Game 3 of the World Series. The only other pitcher to have at least five hitless innings in a World Series game: Larsen for the Yankees.
Anderson said he “felt like I had really turned the corner” recently. He had an impressive 2.30 ERA in his first three starts this month, even though he still had some control issues (eight walks in 15 2/3 innings) that ran up his pitch count and prevented him from completing six innings in any of them. But he was better.
Then came the first inning against the Angels: After Shohei Ohtani was retired on a liner to left field to open the game, the next eight LA batters went homer (Taylor Ward), single, single, single, single, walk, fielder’s choice, single. The inning ended on a liner by Ohtani (as the 10th batter) that Dansby Swanson made a great leaping play to get. Otherwise, the scoring would’ve continued.
The first-inning meltdown unfortunately wasn’t an aberration for Anderson. This season, he has allowed 11 runs, 27 hits and eight walks in his 19 first innings (5.21 ERA), with opponents batting .343. It’s similar to 2021, when his ERA in 17 first innings was 6.38, compared with only 2.93 in other innings.
Of his bad opening acts, Anderson said: “When you’re struggling, you think about everything. I can’t really put a finger on it. It’s frustrating. You want to put on a good performance and follow what the other two guys (Morton and Wright) did, and I wasn’t able to do that.”
Snitker thinks Anderson has struggled to throw his changeup with effectiveness early but said “we’ve seen what this kid can do and how important he can be here.”
“I’ve got a lot of faith in the guy,” the manager added. “He’s worked on things. He’s been through a little rough spot, worked on some things in the bullpen, had two or three really good starts. Nothing tells me he won’t do that again and learn from this and come out better for what the experience was.”
Snitker is correct in that it’s not uncommon for a young pitcher to take a step back. But in a pennant race, things become magnified, and in addition to the Duvall injury, the Braves have one more thing to think about.
(Photo: Brett Davis / USA Today)